OJO CALIENTE, N.M. — Ra Paulette can't stop digging.
For almost two years now, he has scooped, sanded, brushed and swept away a huge outcropping of sandstone in northern New Mexico, creating a magical, swirling, echoing shrine he calls Windows in the Earth.
"It's a living thing. I didn't know what it was going to be when I started. It's almost like being Dr. Frankenstein," he says.
The ceilings stretch more than 20 feet high, and the intricate web of small niches and rooms could make up a small house.
"I don't want to live there," Paulette says. "I want to make this place available for personal experiences. It's made to provide an emotional opportunity for people."
For some, it's a hallowed place, a refuge from the mad world, a sanctuary for prayer and meditation. Others view it as a work of art, an amazing result of one man's creativity and labor.
"I felt the builder put so much of his soul and heart and mind into it, and I loved his spiritual expression. I felt so much peace," says Junko Fletcher of Arlington, Va., who was brought to the shrine by a friend this year to celebrate her 71st birthday.
"The first thing that came in my mind was what a perfect place to meditate. I just didn't want to leave," she says.
Peter Gregory of Albuquerque says his reaction was more aesthetic than emotional.
"I didn't feel any otherworldly experience at all. I just admired it as a beautiful, very impressive piece of art," he says. "The carvings in the walls are exquisitely done. It's an amazing feat just to hollow out the mountain, let alone to finish it so wonderfully."
Every inch of the cave is finished with scallops, molded curves, smooth ledges, inlaid stones, narrow pods and crusty ledges. There are small mirrors inlaid that look like glistening pools, and a small inlaid table and shelves in one corner.
Then there's the Luminous Egg Chamber, a dark, egg-shaped cavity large enough to stand inside.
"I'm still working on that," Paulette says. "When I'm done, you'll sit in the middle of a fog of light in an egg, up on a pedestal with doors. Light will come in from above, but it will look like it's coming from below as well."
Paulette, who turned 50 in August, dug his first limestone cave several years ago near Embudo. At the time, Paulette, who grew up in northern Indiana along the shores of Lake Michigan, was looking to create a simple and peaceful place to live.
But word got out, and what began as a planned home underground soon grew into "The Heart Chamber," which attracted thousands of visitors from around the world.
"It was clear I couldn't live there," he says.
The cave was on public land and had been dug without permission. And, Paulette says, he feared it might collapse on a guest. So, using a shovel and buckets and a wheelbarrow, he buried the chamber and sealed it off.
Then he set off to find a new place to dig.
In June 1994, Paulette approached David Heath and John H. Johnson III and asked them if they would like to commission him to dig a shrine on their property near the Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs.
The two men had moved to the area from California to open the elegant Rancho de San Juan Country Inn & Restaurant.
"This guy comes walking up in Bermuda shorts and a Panama hat, and I said, 'Well, who in the world is this?' " Heath recalls.
After showing them pictures of the Heart Chamber, and after several months of persistence, Paulette prevailed. So far, Heath and Johnson have paid him about $15,000--between $10 and $16 per hour depending on what he is doing.
Now Heath says they're ready for the project to end.
"I told Ra, quite literally, there must be some light at the end of this tunnel," Heath says.
Paulette says he's getting toward the end. At least of this project.
But he's got a lot more digging to do.
"I'm looking at some Forest Service land. I'd like to do this one with approval. It would be a complex, a place for a cathedral, trails, many smaller hermitage caves, trails going to vistas, a pilgrimage wilderness," he says. "With help, it would probably take me the next 20 years."